Challenging the duopoly

Pub date May 15, 2012

By Adam Morris

On May 12, the Green Party held a presidential debate between Massachusetts physician and longtime progressive activist Jill Stein and comedian turned TV star turned macadamia nut farmer Roseanne Barr. The debate was moderated by Rose Aguilar, host of KALW’s Your Call, and took place at San Francisco’s historic Victoria Theater.

Outside the theater before the event, a battalion of senior-citizen canvassers collected signatures to petition Gov. Jerry Brown to take up single-payer health care. Inside, the audience steadily grew to about 100 people, nearly filling the Victoria, but still was a grim turnout for what was once the Valhalla of progressive politics in America.

The audience was primarily gray; notably absent were the 20- and 30-something Occupiers, indebted students, and underemployed ranks of America’s youth, a political class actively courted by the Green Party and its candidates.

Barr read her opening remarks straight from her laptop computer, in a hurried monotone that nevertheless reached a crescendo as she called for “an end to the system of slavery, war, and usury” in America, and pledged to “make getting food to the hungry our final cause.” Ending hunger resurfaced later in the debate, when Barr observed that the military could be used to distribute food. She also claimed that “there would be no global warming” if humans chose to get their protein from nuts rather than eating animals. This would only happen, she charged, by getting Monsanto “off the necks of small farmers.”

Cribbing lines by turn from JFK and Jesus (via Lincoln), Barr continued, “I beseech the debt creators to ask not what this country can do for them, but what they can do for this country,” and asked America to give the 1 percent a chance to be our partners and not our adversaries, “for a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Stein’s opening statement indicted the Obama administration for adopting the policies of the Bush administration and called for a Green New Deal to reform transportation, health care, and environmental standards. Throughout the night, Stein repeatedly invoked the power of grassroots social movements witnessed across the globe, asking the audience to help her and the Greens “go viral” with their message of environmental and social reform.

Both candidates demanded vengeance on Wall Street, with Stein calling for a breakup of the banks and the establishment of public banks. Barr said that current laws allowed for the prosecuting of what she called “the biggest heist in history,” which is how she referred to the “transfer of wealth upward” of the last decade. “Everything filthy and disgusting originates right there on Wall Street,” she said, “and we want our money back.”

On the military, Stein vowed to “bring our dollars home to stop being the exploiter of the world,” and to turn the bomber factories into windmill factories for green jobs. Barr warned against the militarization of the police and the dangers of what she called the “prison-military-industrial complex,” which she said will be “holding a gun on your neighbor while your neighbor does free labor for a corporation.” Barr’s condemnation of the prison complex continued into the debate on legalization of marijuana, which Barr said would thrust the “tip of the spear into the beast” of the incarceration industry.

Stein echoed Barr’s support of legalization, leaning on her authority as a physician to proclaim that “marijuana is dangerous because it is illegal, not illegal because it is dangerous.” As a doctor, Stein also called for a real health care system involving bikeable cities and reform of the FDA to replace the current “sick-care” system favored by the major parties. Barr said that she too would “lift the curse on single payer universal health care.”

The candidates also came out strong in their support of labor reform, slamming NAFTA and suppression of workers’ rights. Stein called for “fair trade” over “free trade,” faulting the Obama administration for its recent free trade deal with a “union-destroying country” like Colombia. Barr choked up when she told the audience that she is able to “represent the people from whom I came,” quickly adding “and I’ll fight hard too—I’ve got balls bigger than anybody.” Women’s rights also drew fiery proclamations from the candidates, with Stein vowing to “resurrect the Equal Rights Amendment,” and Barr stating flatly that “patriarchy needs to go.”

The signature issue of the Green Party—the environment—was a minor if constantly underlying thread to the discussion, emerging as a topic only later in the debate. While Stein repeated Barr’s jabs at Monsanto and pledged to “deny the Keystone Pipeline on Day 1,” Barr grew solemn, acknowledging the possibility that it might be too late to save the environment from impending catastrophes. We would need to learn, she said, to create “a new system that is not money dependent.”

Both candidates broke debate protocol on time limits and turns of speech, but the atmosphere was collegial and supportive, with Barr chiming in “yeahs” to many of Stein’s remarks. Each woman repeatedly said she “agreed completely” with what the other said. “Our greatest weapon,” Barr said, is to “resist the fear they force-feed us,” linking her remarks to Stein’s claim that “the politics of fear has brought us everything we were afraid of.”

Stein railed against a mainstream press that has effectively sequestered discussion of political alternatives. “We do not have a functioning press,” she told the audience, “We have an o-press. We have a re-press.” She repeated her call for Greens to mobilize online to get the word out about alternative party movements. Barr said that she was being very careful not to bring any discredit to the Green Party. Though biting and at times sarcastic, Barr said she her campaign was “dead serious. And the message is dead serious too.”